Over 1.4 billion people – nearly 20% of the world’s population – are without access to electricity, while an additional 1 billion have access only to unreliable, intermittent electricity networks.1 This scarcity is especially felt in sub-Saharan Africa where the electrification rate is only 30.5% and one in four health facilities have a reliable supply of electricity.2 However, the non-profit WE CARE Solar has created a portable off-grid solar electric system, the Solar Suitcase, which is providing dependable electricity to clinics, schools and emergency medical centres to help change this reality.
In the developing world, innovation often comes out of necessity – tackling a problem that the innovator wasn’t previously aware existed.3 When Dr. Laura Stachel was in Nigeria in 2008, working to understand why so many women were dying in childbirth, she realized that one of the main factors had nothing to do with healthcare. At night, a lack of reliable electricity was forcing health care workers to turn away patients or to work by touch under the insufficient light of cell phones, flashlights or candles.
Simple to Use
In Malawi, for example, many clinics expect women to bring candles and matches to the delivery of their child. With nearly one in seven pregnancies having some form of complication, the lack of electricity often has tragic results. Inspired to action by what she saw, Laura and her husband, solar energy educator Hal Aronson, developed a solar electric system – the Solar Suitcase – to provide highly efficient medical lighting and power for mobile communication and small medical devices.
The Solar Suitcase was designed to withstand harsh conditions, while remaining exceptionally simple to use – the system turns on with a single switch. Small enough to mount on the wall as a cabinet, the basic unit includes two 20 watt solar panels, a 14 amp-hour battery, a 15A charge controller, two headlamps, phone and battery chargers, and the installation hardware. It is designed for expansion and can accommodate up to 200 watts of solar panels and a 100 amp-hour sealed battery.
The lighting system lasts for 70,000 hours – that’s 10 to 20 years of operation. The basic system costs $1545, but WE CARE Solar provides it along with training, installation and transport for free through grant funding and support from sponsors and partner organizations. These systems are saving lives and reducing strain on healthcare workers.
While originally designed for maternity clinics, the breadth of the project has expanded to a range of medical and humanitarian settings, such as for medical relief teams in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
“Sunshine Saving Lives”
Most recently, 15 were sent to Ebola checkpoints and holding centres in Liberia to assist health care workers. As of November 2014, 900 Solar Suitcases have been assembled and sent to 25 countries across Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Central America.
Regional programs are in place in Sierra Leone, Uganda, Malawi and the Philippines, with expansions for Ethiopia and Tanzania in 2015.4 Maternal deaths have decreased by as much as 70% in some cases. 5 For one community, an outbreak of cholera meant that the Solar Suitcase was on every night for a month. For the first time ever, not one person died – 122 patients were saved, when in the past, the mortality rate was 50%.6
WE CARE Solar is also looking beyond the provision of physical resources to educational programs and community ownership. In the field, they often see broken solar electric systems, due in part to improper training and installation. To avoid this, when demand rose beyond the staff’s capacity to personally deliver each suitcase, they trained 14 women to be Solar Ambassadors, who could then train locals on how to use and install the systems. As well, the organization founded We Share Solar, an educational program that teaches students to build Solar Suitcases that will then be donated to non-profits working with schools and orphanages that lack reliable electricity.
Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, may have said it best when she called the Solar Suitcase “sunshine saving lives”.7